WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) on Thursday night offered the nation's condolences to victims of Hurricane Katrina, thanking all the emergency workers and promising support in cleaning up and rebuilding after the disaster.
"Tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes … we will stay as long as it takes … to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," Bush said in a prime-time address to the nation that lasted 23 minutes.
"And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know: There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," he said.
In his speech, delivered from a podium in Jackson Square (search), the president was well lit with a statue of Andrew Jackson astride his horse and St. Louis Cathedral in the background.
But the rest of the city was nearly completely dark, the eerie quiet interrupted only by an occasional ambulance and the sounds from a parking lot on Decatur Street, where large mess tents were set up to feed the National Guardsmen assigned to help clear and protect New Orleans. The death toll from Katrina reached 794 on Thursday, with 558 of them found in Louisiana.
Bush promised that federal funds will cover "the great majority of the costs" associated with rebuilding the Gulf Coast region, including roads, bridges, schools and water systems.
Noting the city of New Orleans is "nearly empty, still partly under water and waiting for life and hope to return," Bush said the recovery effort was already well under way. In nearly all of Mississippi, electric power has been restored. Deliveries have begun at the Port of New Orleans, all major gasoline pipelines are operating, levees have been repaired and water is being pumped out of the city faster than expected.
Bush said emergency managers are also working to get drinking-water and waste-water treatment systems operating again and preparing bodies for burial.
Bush said Congress has provided more than $60 billion in federal aid so far that has been used in part to help more than 500,000 evacuee families get emergency food, clothing and other essentials. The government's goal is to get people out of shelters by the middle of October, he said.
"This is an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis, which demonstrates the compassion and resolve of our nation," he said.
Bush outlined support that has already come from several federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search), the United States military, the National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security. He said the Department of Health and Human Services has sent 1,500 health professionals and 50 tons of medical supplies; the Department of Labor is helping displaced people apply for temporary jobs and unemployment benefits; and the U.S. Postal Service is registering new addresses so that people can get their mail. Many residents of the area had already received their Social Security checks, he said.
Going beyond merely offering federal aid, Bush offered a list of proposals aimed not only at getting the region back to normal, but also to making it better than it was. Recalling the proposals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bush suggested several poverty-fighting and growth-oriented items, including a Gulf Opportunity Zone for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that will provide immediate incentives for job-creating investment, small business tax relief and loan guarantees for small businesses, including minority-owned enterprises.
He also proposed Worker Recovery Accounts, a $5,000 stipend for evacuees to use on job training and education to help them find work and pay for child-care expenses during their job search. The president also suggested an Urban Homesteading Act to identify government property and building sites that low-income citizens can be given free of charge as long as they pledge to build on the lot. Money to invest would come from charitable organizations like Habitat for Humanity (search).
"The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen. When that job is done, all Americans will have something to be very proud of — and all Americans are needed in this common effort," he said.
Going beyond the vein of FDR, Bush addressed the issue of poverty, particularly as it relates to racial disparity in America. The president had been accused of not being quick or sensitive enough in his initial response because the majority of people in need after the hurricane were minorities and poor.
In his remarks, the president acknowledged that poverty in the region has its roots in "a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America" and said the government has a duty to confront poverty with decisive actions.
"Let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality," Bush said. "When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created. Americans want the Gulf Coast not just to survive, but to thrive … not just to cope, but to overcome. We want evacuees to come home, for the best of reasons -- because they have a real chance at a better life in a place they love."
Despite the high-minded rhetoric, the president said many of the large-scale operations will be run by state and local officials. He said the federal government will defer many of the responsibilities to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search) and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, among others.
Those responsibilities will include considering future zoning laws and building codes, directing employers to local workers and coordinating with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine the best flood protection systems for the region.
Bush said individuals can also help -- some $100 million dollars in private donations have already been pledged -- and Americans can go to USA Freedom Corps, the country's national service agency, to coordinate assistance between churches, schools, labor unions and other assemblies.
"It is the armies of compassion -- charities and houses of worship and idealistic men and women -- that give our reconstruction effort its humanity. They offer to those who hurt a friendly face, an arm around the shoulder, and the reassurance that in hard times, they can count on someone who cares," Bush said.
Prior to his speech, the president arrived aboard the USS Iwo Jima stationed in the Mississippi River an a launching post for the federal response. There, he was greeted by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (search); Acting Federal Emergency Management Agency head David Paulison; Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of active-duty troops engaged in hurricane relief; Vice Admiral Thad Allen, who is charge of the federal relief effort on the ground in the region; Nagin and Blanco.
Before that, Bush went to Pascagoula, Miss., where he met with a group of refinery workers after meeting with industry and local officials at a Chevron refinery.
Not Just Action, But Reflection
Though on his fourth trip to the region since Katrina hit, Bush has been roundly criticized for what many say is a slow federal response to the storm and the president's failure to get out in front of cameras to pledge his support for recovery and reconstruction.
As he did earlier in the week, Bush took blame for the government's delayed reaction.
"Four years after the frightening experience of September 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution," he said.
Bush said he has ordered every Cabinet secretary to review of the government response to the hurricane and come up with lessons to be learned. He said he also has asked the Department of Homeland Security to undertake an immediate review, in cooperation with local counterparts, of emergency plans in every major city in America.
"We are going to review every action and make necessary changes, so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people," he said.
"In a time of terror threats and weapons of mass destruction, the danger to our citizens reaches much wider than a fault line or a flood plain. I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority," Bush said.
The suggestion may not appease some lawmakers in Congress, however. On Thursday afternoon, House Republicans forced a vote on a bipartisan committee to investigate the slow turnaround from the federal government. Late Thursday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert named Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, to lead the investigative panel.
The GOP-led decision for an internal investigation came in spite of Democratic complaints that an independent commission is better suited for a review since a congressional committee will cover up the president's failings.
In a joint response after the president's speech, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the president must do more than offer comforting words.
"It takes more than just taking responsibility to right the many wrongs that occurred over the past two weeks. The American people need answers from independent experts outside of the political arena to learn from the past and prepare and protect our nation and our communities for the future. We can and must do better," they said in a written statement.
"No American doubts that New Orleans will rise again, they doubt the competence and commitment of this administration," added Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "Americans want to know that their government will be there when it counts with leadership that keeps them safe, not speeches in the aftermath to explain away the inexcusable."
Bush said he wants to work with members from both parties to help get out the facts about the government response. In addition to a review, he also announced that a "team of inspectors general" will monitor spending as federal dollars are doled out.
"Our goal is to get the work done quickly. And taxpayers expect this work to be done honestly and wisely," Bush said.
Earlier Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security named a special inspector general to handle hurricane relief.
Money is a continuing concern over the course of the cleanup as spending authorizations have surpassed $60 billion, and some say that the federal budget deficit could soar past $400 billion.
Polling shows Americans are willing to pay to rebuild New Orleans. According to a CBS-New York Times poll released Wednesday, 73 percent expect their taxes will increase as a result of Katrina, and more than half said they were willing to pay more taxes to help with Katrina recovery, job training and housing for victims.
But Dan Bartlett, a counselor to the president, dismissed a call for higher taxes to pay for the cleanup.
"There’s always discussions about raising taxes,” Bartlett said. "The thing we have to think about, is that right when businesses and people are trying to get back on their feet in the Gulf Coast region, the worst thing we could do to these families is to pop them with another tax,” especially considering the recent hike in gas prices, he said.
The perception of a sluggish response to the storm has led to the lowest approval ratings of Bush's presidency. A FOX News-Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday showed the president's approval rating at 41 percent, down from 45 percent last month. Bush's disapproval rating reached 51 percent this month.
Bush did not speak before a live audience, but was greeted along the route by members of the 82nd Airborne who stood in the dark and saluted the president as his motorcade passed.